Tag Archives: Scotland

A time to meet in Ayrshire

 

img_0007

The A Frame of the former Barony coal mine in Auchinleck. “The Barony A Frame” was the title of a piece of music by Scott Lygate given its world premiere at the Cumnock Tryst this year. The coal mine closed in 1989.

 

Three years ago, a Leaf Collecting post drew similarities between contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan and the earlier Benjamin Britten.  If I had waited another year, I could have added the further similarity of their two music festivals.  

MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst is still small by the standards of other festivals, but it is significant for being a classical music weekend in an area which does not normally host such things and which will benefit greatly from any such cultural and financial investment. Cumnock, the former mining town where MacMillan grew up, and its smaller neighbour Auchinleck together boast several handsome churches and other buildings which can ably stage classical concerts, especially of sacred music. 

 

img_0012

The interior of the Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist in Cumnock is the more striking, but its sloped, wooden-framed entrance vestibule still catches the eye and hints at the varied influences of its architect William Burges.

 

I was thrilled to be at the first concert of the first festival in 2014 to see the world-famous and brilliant choir The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, in the church of St John the Evangelist, Cumnock, with its sumptuous Arts and Crafts/Gothic interior by architect William Burges. Their programme included a mix of works by the 16th century English composer Sheppard and modern compositions based on the “Stabat Mater”.

 

img_0008

This view of Cumnock Old Church displays its proportions but not really its prominence in the centre of The Square in the town.

 

Nothing in the second festival line-up enticed me like The Sixteen, but the concert at the Cumnock Old Church was still highly satisfactory. It included Fauré’s “Requiem”, some Bach and a MacMillan première, performed by the collected forces of the Hebrides Ensemble, Genesis Sixteen and the newly-formed Festival Chorus.

This year I was back at St John’s Church for a performance by the aforementioned Genesis Sixteen, the younger “apprentice” ensemble of The Sixteen, conducted by Eamonn Dougan. Their varied programme included Renaissance composers like Lassus, Bertolusi and Ramsay and 20th century names like Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton and Roderick Williams.

 

img_0011

The exterior of Trinity Church in Cumnock, where Nicola Benedetti performed as part of a trio at this year’s Cumnock Tryst, is echoed by the distinctive shop fronts next door.

 

One tiny criticism of the Cumnock Tryst is that twice in three years it has featured another Scottish classical music celebrity, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and thus might create the impression that it is too heavily reliant on two local star individuals. Another is that the use of the 18th century Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House, already a great tourism and commercial development for the area since a Prince Charles-led consortium secured its future in 2007, unbalances the shape of the Tryst as it has hosted three Sunday finale concerts with the most expensive tickets which have all sold out quickly.

 

img_0014

Dumfries House, designed by Robert Adam and his brothers in the 1750s.

 

However, I know these criticisms are not really fair.  Benedetti is the designated patron of the festival and her appearance this year was as part of a trio in a varied programme which included the contemporary music by Mark-Antony Turnage, which I would rather liked to have attended myself. And why should the fans of the splendid Dumfries House not enjoy their rare chance to hear live music in its period setting? Elsewhere throughout the weekend, the Cumnock Tryst celebrates less famous composers and musicians, plus some fine buildings in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

Next year, I should go more often than once to this valuable social and cultural enterprise.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fearties, procrastinators and forelock-tuggers

 

At the recent royal opening of the new session of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Youth Theatre gave a presentation of the great Edwin Morgan poem which was written for the Parliament’s opening in 2004. It is often tempting to compare the daily functioning of the Scottish Parliament with how Morgan imagined it.

His first lines are about the Parliament’s architecture, which certainly caused controversy well before it opened. A building of “curves and caverns” rather than of “Gothic grandeur” or of “imperial marble”, Enric Miralles’ design probably still incites comments among visitors, although I feel the two views you normally see on TV, the chamber and that internal staircase where TV addresses and interviews take place, always look bright and attractive.  I was however quite shocked to find on my single visit that the main public entrance is so much lower and darker than expected (partly because of the inevitable space for security precautions).

The debating chamber was built in a semi-circle to distinguish it from Westminster and to discourage the aggressive adversarial practices of the UK Parliament, which are so often criticised. The individual workstations do give the impression of a modern grown-up office space rather than merely an arena for rhetoric and heckling. Sitting space is more civilised and generous. Despite all this, and its smaller number of members, the Westminster habits of shouting and cheering and blaming and insults appear to have continued. Certainly it provides copy for the journalists, who are after all among its most regular visitors.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are different from those to the UK Parliament, being by a form of proportional representation. However many other features are similar to Westminster.  The elected representatives are entitled MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) which is perhaps a bit close to MPs (Members of (the UK) Parliament). The group of senior government ministers had always been called the Cabinet, so it was perhaps no surprise when the SNP later exalted these ministers to the grander Westminster title of Secretary. The weekly First Minister’s Question Time is constructed in a similar adversarial way to Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons – “it is the most popular session of Parliament and demand for tickets is extremely high”, says the Parliament website presumably without irony.

In Morgan’s poem, some of his strongest phrases are directed towards political misbehaviour. He warned against “fearties…procrastinators….forelock-tuggers”, and, especially, those prone to explaining inaction and incompetence with “the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’”. He wanted elected members to be “open and adventurous”.

Whether Morgan’s wishes have been granted or not may depend on your political opinion. I tend to feel that on many occasions members of all political parties have been guilty of cowardice, inertia and making excuses. An individual’s statements can change dramatically depending on whether he or she is in power or in opposition. The political party which is most often in power in Scottish local government tends to blame its inertia on the party which is currently in power in the Scottish Parliament which in turn tends to blame either the party of local government or the different party which is in power in the UK Parliament. Such unsatisfactory behaviour probably applies in other countries’ governments, but not all have Morgan’s stirring words to inspire them.

I remember, in the earlier years of the Scottish Parliament, in answer to some public criticism about whether this new assembly was achieving anything at all useful, the then SNP leader Alex Salmond replied to the effect that there was a difference between a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish government. Certainly, after 17 years of a Scottish Parliament and the major devolution of government functions which have involved all political parties, there is, regrettably, plenty of evidence that poverty, homelessness and low educational achievement continue in many parts of Scotland.

Is it an inevitable result of growing old that you find your elected representatives less and less satisfactory? When young you may feel angry about injustice and poverty but still suspect that perhaps those in power really are more experienced and more knowledgeable and wiser and perhaps those social problems really are as hard to fix as they say. When you’re older than most of your elected representatives you know that that is unfortunately not true and that failure is caused by incompetence, lack of effort or inappropriate political choices.

Once long ago I was attracted to the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman who was willing to give up his power as a dictator once his designated task was complete and to retire to his farm. So different from modern political careerists who are so eloquent at self-justification!

Maybe the answer is to apply the ideals of Edwin Morgan’s poem to ourselves, each in our individual social and public lives?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For humility and contentment

 

Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.

 

IMG_0573

 

One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!

 

IMG_0568

 

This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”

 

Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Over the border

 

 

photo1DundrennanAbbey

Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkudbright, was built in the 12th century.

 

For centuries the border areas around Scotland and England were places of tension, rivalry, crime, and organised military conflict. They were also the scenes of dramatic romantic stories, poems and songs.  The first album I heard by Dick Gaughan, No More Forever, originally released in 1972, included powerful versions of two such songs.

“The Fair Flower of Northumberland” is a traditional song where the daughter of an English nobleman helps his Scottish prisoner to escape from captivity. Each verse repeats a line that the young woman’s love has been “easy won” and, indeed, the Scotsman turns treacherous after they safely cross the border. He is already married and he sends her back home to Northumberland with the ugly epithet that she is a “brazen-faced whore”. Her parents are surprisingly sympathetic: she has been “beguiled” by the romantic foreign prisoner and the correct solution is that they now provide a dowry to find her a more suitable husband.

 

photo2ThreaveCastle

Threave Castle, near Castle Douglas, was built in the 14th century. It stands on an island in the River Dee.

 

In “Jock o’ Hazeldean”, written by Walter Scott although based on an earlier traditional ballad, the dowry and engagement have already been set. Three of the stanzas are spoken by the future father-in-law of the young English woman and Scott includes some great images of medieval wealth and status. The young woman has already been promised a “coat o’ gowd” and the ostentatious outdoor pleasures of “hound…hawk (and) palfrey”; for her wedding the (presumably pre-Reformation) church is “deckt at mornintide (and) the tapers glimmert fair”. We are given no information about whether this Scotsman is more deserving of devotion than the last; regardless, “she’s owre the border and awa’ wi’ Jock o’ Hazeldean”.

 

photo4

Part of the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries. It is so called because it was founded by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway in the 13th century in memory of her late husband, John Balliol.

 

A later song of border romance from a different musical style is “Moonlighting” , co-written and recorded by Leo Sayer in 1975. Here both lovers are English, living perhaps somewhere in the north of England.

 

photo8HadriansWall

Part of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman division between England and Scotland, photographed on a drizzly day in 2003.

 

In apparent homage to earlier border traditions, the song has a relatively spare instrumentation in which a xylophone or glockenspiel seems to play a part. The rhythm, gentle but still urgent, evokes  surreptitious plans and nervous excitement.

The narrative is set in happier times when young adults who were not university graduates might have stable secure employment. He works in a printers, she in “the water department” of the local council, presumably in a secretarial or clerical role; he owns a blue Morris van. We know her surname and that he has a friend called Eddie, but neither Christian name.

There does not appear to be any serious tensions between their two families; only desire and adventure fuel the elopement to the border to be married in Scotland. The place name identification in the final lines, “We’re only ten miles to Gretna, they’re three hundred behind” has always struck me as having as much poignancy as in many a more famous song.

 

photo5Gretna1990

The old blacksmiths shop in Gretna Green, as photographed in 1990. The tradition of English couples rushing here to marry began when Scotland had lower ages of consent than England.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Which arts centre took its name from Buddhist philosophy?

 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the setting up of the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.

A multi-purpose centre of art gallery, performance space and bookshop within Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s imposing Grecian Chambers, it was a formative location in my artistic education during the 1980s. Its shop-front space without an overbearing staff presence meant that you felt you could call in on a whim and stroll around for ten minutes at a time without self-consciousness.

Its front bookshop was especially enticing, crammed with newspapers and magazines covering all aspects of the arts, culture and politics as well as a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. This old photo ignites nostalgia.

I must confess that my clearest recollections of visual art shows there are of a couple of crowd-pleasers, one of Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets from Spitting Image, the other an exhibition of the new fashionable young Scottish painters like Steven Campbell and Adrian Wisniewski. But the online archive prompts recall of others from its eclectic history like Alexander “Greek” Thomson,  multi-media artist George Wylie, photographer Oscar Marzaroli and Glasgow pigeon lofts (yes!)

The music concert at the forefront of my memory is Richard and Linda Thompson, but Max Reinhardt on Late Junction has just prompted my recall of the wonderful acappella of the Mint Juleps one Mayfest.  I also remember the reading by Seamus Heaney which was preceded by traditional singer Ted Hickey, and a performance of another kind in the stand-up comedy of Simon Fanshawe and Jenny Eclair.

This was a golden age of touring theatre and the Third Eye was, alongside the Tron and the Mitchell theatres, an important Glasgow platform for small productions. While there were many I read about with interest and missed with regret, the only one I actually saw was a double bill of short Beckett plays by a tiny local company called the Great Western Theatre Company.

The Third Eye was a major partner in at least two Glasgow festivals of art and culture from Russia and eastern Europe as the continent redrew boundaries at the end of the 1980s. These events were successful artistically but not always financially, and this latter fact led to the closure of the venue around 1990 or 1991 – at the very time of the European City of Culture success towards which it had been such an important contributor.

When the building reopened a year or two later, its new name, the Centre of Contemporary Arts, sounded so plain, so half-hearted, that its future seemed unpromising. Yet, as it has turned out , the life of the CCA has been longer than that of the Third Eye Centre. Refurbishment included expansion into adjoining premises, arts events of varying kinds were presented and thrived. The spirit of the Third Eye Centre has lived on…plus it has an excellent cafe/restaurant  of the classic arts centre type with an arty name!

It was great to find further archive material from the web-site of the short-lived Glasgow Miracle Project.  More forthcoming from other sources one day, perhaps.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ayrshire’s other 18th century writer

 

The contrast is often drawn between the world-wide fame of Robert Burns, and the lesser renown  of his Ayrshire contemporary James Boswell.

 

DSC03028

A banner advertising the Boswell Book Festival in 2014.

 

The imbalance was redressed a little five years ago when the Boswell Book Festival  was set up to celebrate the life and work of the writer at his former family home in Ayrshire, Auchinleck House.  It was launched as a festival dedicated to the genres of biography, memoir and diary, the three forms practised by Boswell, the 18th century Ayrshire boy who travelled to London to make his fortune among the literary elite.

From the first, the Boswell Book Festival has been well sponsored and packed with well-known names who might not normally be seen in Ayrshire. The familiar talks and readings have been imaginatively supplemented by occasional theatre and music performances. The diary element was quietly dropped after the first year, but it has continued to be publicised as a festival of biography and memoir.

 

DSC03029

Visitors to the rain-washed 2014 Boswell Book Festival outside Auchinleck House. As Boswell wrote about his home when Johnson and he visited Boswell’s father there, “It rained all day, and gave Dr Johnson an impression of that incommodiousness of climate in the west…”

 

You can understand that a book festival needs to have a varied programme to attract the widest possible audience, but for me a significant weakness of the event is how little it deals with Boswell himself and his times.

Its first two years did include David McKail’s one-man show “Bozzy”, David Ashton’s play “Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary of Crime” with Timothy West as Johnson, and an appearance by John Byrne, who had written and directed a TV film about Boswell and Johnson’s trip to the Western Isles.  In addition, Dr Gordon Turnbull, General Editor of the Yale University Boswell editions, has been an annual speaker. However, there have been no events about  other aspects of 18th century history and culture, such as might be provided by Jenny UglowAmanda Vickery,  Linda Colley or Maxine Berg.

Instead, many of the guests are the familiar names who appear at other book festivals –  for example, Kate Adie, James Naughtie, Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, Ian Rankin –  and their topics often seem distant from  Boswell and the 18th century.

This year, in fact, the festival actually moved away from Auchinleck House to another period property in Ayrshire, Dumfries House near Cumnock.  The new location has certainly been able to provide improved space for events and catering within the house and outbuildings, thus reducing the dependence on vulnerable marquees. In addition, the estate already had more extensive parking space (on level, dry surfaces!) and established woodland walks and children’s playground.

 

IMG_0199

Dumfries House, built in the mid 18th century, venue of the 2015 Boswell Book Festival .

 

IMG_0198

The rear of Dumfries House with two marquees erected for Book Festival events.

 

It still seems unfortunate, though, that the festival’s physical link with Boswell’s own family home should be severed.  The stated purpose of the Boswell Trust, alongside the Festival,  is to restore the Boswell Mausoleum in Auchinleck Church. Some Auchinleck estate buildings which have just recently been converted to a cafe and gallery have lost a potentially lucrative weekend.

Still, the organisers of the Boswell Book Festival have done a great job for the local area and the event will surely continue to enhance Boswell’s reputation as, to quote from Andrew Marr in the BBC programme  Great Scots: The Writers who Shaped a Nation “the father of modern journalism (and) the inventor of literary biography” as well as a colourful early example of the ambitious young Scot who makes his name in London’s literary and social circles.

 

DSC03025

Another view of the exterior of Auchinleck House, home of James Boswell. Samuel Johnson described it as “a house of hewn stone, very stately and durable” when he visited it with Boswell.

 

Reference :

Johnson, Samuel and Boswell, James (1984)   A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal                                                                          of a Tour  to the Hebrides  ed. Peter Levi     London : Penguin

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Small towns, bigger sounds

 

All small towns have their local pop and rock musicians, varying in talent and ambition. Of the smaller towns in Scotland, possibly only Bellshill has ever produced more than its fair share of successful bands with its 1980s/1990s harvest of Teenage Fanclub, the Soup Dragons , the BMX Bandits and Superstar. The time when David Belcher, then of The Herald ,wryly described Bellshill as “a bitch of a rock and roll town”.  Although perhaps we could also single out East Kilbride for its brief but glorious production line of Aztec Camera and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

While my own home town of Greenock has probably produced just as many musicians as the next place, few have impinged on the national consciousness. Before the millennium, the two or three years career of Whiteout during the mid 1990s Britpop era was possibly the most discernible. They signed to a big label, released two albums and appeared on national TV.

Then, during the last decade, I suddenly spotted UK-wide press coverage for My Latest Novel. A bigger outfit numerically, and with a bigger and more varied sound than many, following the now established pattern of singing in their Scottish accents.

To date, they have released two albums, Wolves and Deaths and Entrances. Their musical template – mixing acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, violin and varied percussion with gritty but sympathetic harmony singing – has certainly been used before, but I like their version particularly because it sounds different to the way I expected a Greenock band to sound.

I don’t pay such close regard to lyrics as in my youthful days of regular listens to Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne, so  what has made more impression on me is their overall rough but splendid indie range and the Scottish-accented vocal delivery. Those lyrics which I have noted have subtly recalled other elements of contemporary Scottish culture, for example the male characters from the paintings of Peter Howson or Alexander Millar in “The Reputation of Ross Francis” or the National Theatre of Scotland  production The Wolves in the Walls in “When We Were Wolves”.

To be frank, what press reviews of My Latest Novel I have found on the internet have been distinctly varied in their assessment. Kevin Jagernauth on Pop Matters  heard little in the music which hadn’t already been covered by Belle and Sebastian or Arcade Fire. He described the first album  as “unfulfilling” and “uninteresting”  and “forgettable”  because “ there is no danger, chances, or forward thinking”.   Ben Patashnik  of the New Musical Express described the second album as “over-zealous” and “self-indulgent”. Roque Strew of Pitchfork was a bit more complimentary, referring to the band’s “symphony-to-God harmonies, and poetic, double-edged oratory”.

To my taste, My Latest Novel have been a worthy addition to that list of fine Scottish bands of the past 20 years which has included Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados, Glasvegas, Sons and Daughters, Popup, Uncle John and Whitelock and Honeyblood. However, it does look like their era might have come to an end. Three of the band members are now recording under the name Alphabetical Order Orchestra, keeping the acoustic and light electric side of the previous sound and dropping the rougher, denser, multilayered  parts.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Different seashores

 

Last year, on the Radio 4 series Publishing Lives, Antonia Fraser said that one of her first writing commissions, when employed for the publisher George Weidenfeld, was a book of stories based on the legends of King Arthur.

My own first experience of the King Arthur stories was from a similar book,  one of the many I read by that now under-appreciated writer of the past, Enid Blyton.

One of the most memorable Arthurian stories, of course, is the quest (not search nor hunt, I immediately noticed) for the Holy Grail. From memory, Blyton’s version included a reference to some knights’ journey to “the seashore”. This destination sounded far more mysterious and exotic than anything that I might see near my home town on the west coast of Scotland, and helped to sharpen my appreciation of her version of the story.

Here are some different seashores :  first of the River Clyde near Seamill and Largs,

 

Seamill2

 

Largs4

 

one from further up the west coast of Scotland, on the island of Iona,

 

img232

 

and one of the more exotic Sea of Galilee.

 

SeaofGalilee5

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Six months to go

 

The Scottish independence referendum argument builds apace, involving, in the last few weeks, politicians, bankers and artists from outside Scotland. The future of the people of Scotland has not always, during my adult life, attracted such interest and concern from beyond our borders.

I am one of the voters who brought us to this place. Naturally left-wing or liberal, voting Labour through most of our lives, we then experimented with supporting the Scottish National Party in the first decade of the Scottish parliament,  giving them first minority power, and then, struck by both their progressive competence in, and progressive inclinations towards government, giving them a majority of 32 in the elections of 2011.

In the 1970s, in the early days of my political education, Scottish nationalism was a right-of-centre phenomenon. The SNP were dubbed “Tartan Tories”, although this soubriquet may have been coined partly because the UK governments of this era were mostly Labour.

The party’s stance shifted during the 1980s. One of its leading figures was Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP who had actually co-founded the short-lived Scottish Labour Party in the mid-1970s which aimed to blend the socialist and nationalist traditions.  Alex Neil, a present Scottish government minister, was another member of the SLP. One impact this short-lived party did have was to force the original Labour Party to re-brand itself, for a time, as “the Labour Party in Scotland”.

The younger generation of nationalist politicians, like Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill, definitely  appeared to adopt a more left-wing perspective. This idea that Scottish nationalism and socialism were sympathetic rather than opposing principles had already come to me via such different sources as journalist Neal Ascherson, folk musician Dick Gaughan and the now defunct magazines Radical Scotland and Cencrastus.

The role of the artistic community has been a topic in the present independence debate.   Have our performing companies and institutions addressed the subject adequately, or allowed themselves to be hijacked by it? Some artists are openly pro-independence campaigners while others wonder about how many are fully engaged.

I have read, and heard, many contributions from people who are, like me, drawn towards voting “yes” in the referendum but who have not been long-term SNP or independence supporters.  Many see independence as an opportunity less for separation than for further embedding principles and practices of social justice.  For example, the National Collective , the Reid Foundation with its Common Weal project, and the social worker and community activist Bob Holman, a life-long member of the Labour Party.

A rather different perspective is that provided by Ewan Morrison, that choosing independence might be another example of the borderline personality disorder which the Scottish psyche has suffered from, and so a better approach might be to stay with the union, or at very least, have a modest expectation about what independence will achieve. Although attracted to the socialist opportunities provided by  independence , I think I might have already inadvertently come to share Morrison’s conclusion when I have said to many people on either side of the debate, “In the short term I think very little will actually change”.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A song whose time may be coming

 

The very first time I consciously heard “Freedom Come All Ye” was at the close of my first Dick Gaughan concert, in Glasgow in 1985. “Hamish Henderson called this the song of the century,” Gaughan introduced it, “and it’s the song I want to be our national anthem when we become independent.”

I had become a great fan of Gaughan by that time, both of his political songs and his more traditional material, so those comments struck me. I already knew and loved another Henderson lyric which Gaughan had recorded, “The John McLean March”.

Two elements of “Freedom Come All Ye” immediately engaged me: the tune, and those English words which I could discern from that first listen: the lines about the ships sailing from the Broomielaw and about John McLean meeting with his friends in Springburn.

What I didn’t realise at first was that the music of the song was traditional and not Henderson’s own composition – he followed the Robert Burns practice of writing words to traditional tunes –  so that reduced somewhat my initial awe for the song. Later again, I became a little less patient with the use of the Scots language as a medium. That first visceral impact of the song (of which a large part came from Gaughan’s unique delivery) began to dilute.

More recently, having heard the song regularly in various recorded and live versions, I have scrutinised its lyrics more closely. It is still greatly loved by more than one generation of left-leaning folk music fans.  But is it as great as Gaughan first said?

My present opinion is that it is perhaps three quarters of a great anthem.

The first stanza is mostly good. The song starts with references to weather and climate, good classic lyrical openings, as Burns himself applied in “Now Westlin Winds”.  Even an ear unused to the Scots language might pick out that the song is commenting on events of “the world the day” and that the actions of “rogues” are being criticised.

The second stanza is a bit more confusing. A reference to the ships sailing down the Broomielaw might be expected to be a heroic one but actually these ships are not the newly-launched Clyde-built products of working-class craftsmen but departing troop carriers mourned by onlookers. “Scotland the Brave”, also usually a reference to heroism, is here explicitly described as a “curse”. In fact, the stanza is supporting equally the plight of Scottish soldiers forced to fight unnecessary wars abroad and the inhabitants of the countries they invade.

It seems that Henderson was being critical and ironic with language which is often taken at face value, the language of national and imperial martial success. Rather in the way Bruce Springsteen was angry that his “Born in the USA” was misread by US Republicans as a jingoistic flag-waver rather than as a statement of anger at the country’s betrayal of its war-veteran working-class.

Henderson’s lyrics clarify again at the start of the final stanza. The “freedom” of the title is signposted at the start and there is a clear exhortation not to listen to voices of fear and reaction.  The reference to John McLean is indeed one of celebration, about his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. However, the phrase “painted room” is surely too flimsy to represent such ideas as a home fit for heroes or the 21st century Americanism of homeland.  The final image of pulling down gallows is a powerful one but the reference to “a black boy” now sounds uncomfortably close to the colonialism which Henderson was challenging. It’s also a weak phrase for the song’s big finish. And why the specific naming of “Nyanga” at the end? Apparently it was a location of anti-apartheid protest but is certainly now rather less well-known than Sharpeville or Guernica or Auschwitz.

Of course the delivery of a song is all-important. Most versions of “Freedom Come A Ye” which I have heard present it in a dramatic, martial way from start to finish. Maybe it should be sung more delicately and gently, with differing emphases as the imagery shifts from heroic to bleaker. I don’t remember enough of the details of Gaughan’s performance in 1985 but You Tube has a TV performance  from 1989 which is excellent.  His delivery is sweet but manly and measured and I note he changes that penultimate line from “black boy” to “black lad”, slightly less horrible as a phrase plus more assonant to the ear.  Of course Gaughan would be the first person to admit he can’t quite sing like that any more!

Scotland now sits a little closer to the political situation which Gaughan envisaged in his 1985 comments but I think today’s Scotland is a little less attached to the Scots language than Hamish Henderson hoped we might be.  It will be intriguing to see whether the political and cultural discussions which continue during this year will give the song a higher profile.

A man is entitled to change his mind over time. Gaughan’s most recently reported views on the song, when he performed it in Edinburgh on 1 January this year, show a slightly different attitude to it. In an epithet which was apparently first coined by the late Labour MP and folk music aficionado Norman Buchan, Gaughan said, “The best way to kill a song is to make it a national anthem.”

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized